Trump refuses comment on India citizenship law, as protests leave at least 7 dead

An angry group of Hindus carrying pickaxes and iron rods hurled rocks at Muslims in new violence in the Indian capital on Tuesday, a day after at least seven people, including a police officer, were killed and more than 100 others were reportedly injured in clashes over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims, police said.

The violence occurred as U.S. President Donald Trump held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the second day of a visit to India. Trump told reporters that he heard about the violence, but did not discuss it with Modi.

Black smoke rose into the sky after protesters set fruit and vegetable shops and a Muslim shrine on fire in the Bhajanpur area in New Delhi’s northeast, witnesses said.

The group of Hindus roamed the area shouting praises to Hindu gods and goddesses. Police fired tear gas to disperse both them and a group of rival Muslims. They retreated to the two sides of a highway.

India has been rocked by violence since parliament approved a new citizenship law in December that provides fast-track naturalization for some foreign-born religious minorities but not Muslims.

‘I don’t want to discuss that’

Trump declined to comment on the new law. “I don’t want to discuss that. I want to leave that to India and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people,” he said.

“He wants people to have religious freedom,” said Trump, without elaborating. The president himself proposed temporarily barring all Muslims from entering the U.S. during his 2016 campaign and successfully implemented a travel ban that targets travellers from certain majority-Muslim countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump sprays flower petals during a wreath laying ceremony at Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat in New Delhi. At a news conference later, Trump steered clear of India’s controversial citizenship law other than to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi supports religious freedom. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Also Tuesday, protesters in several other areas of northeastern New Delhi defied orders prohibiting the assembly of more than five people and threw stones and set some shops and vehicles on fire, a police officer said. Some homes were attacked with rocks.

The police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said the situation was tense but under control. Police and paramilitary forces sent reinforcements to quell the clashes.

The New Delhi Television news channel said more than 100 people had been injured in clashes since Monday.

Police spokesman Anil Kumar confirmed seven deaths on Monday, but said he didn’t have the number of people injured in Tuesday’s violence.

The Press Trust of India news agency put the death toll at nine.

A man pushes his damaged scooter past a burning petrol pump during a clash between people supporting a new citizenship law and those opposing it, in New Delhi, on Monday. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

During Monday’s protests, police fired tear gas and used canes as they charged at protesters in several areas of New Delhi. The rival groups hurled rocks at each other and set some houses, shops, vehicles and a gasoline pump on fire. Police closed two metro stations in the area.

One police officer was killed in the violence after he was hit by rocks, police officer Anuj Kumar said. Eleven other officers were injured by rocks as they tried to separate rival groups, police said.

Also Monday, Hindu nationalist and communist groups held pro- and anti-U.S. street demonstrations in the capital.

Trade talk short on specifics

Trump spent much of Tuesday meeting with Modi, as well as some Indian business leaders. He emerged saying he was optimistic about the prospects of ultimately completing a trade deal with India despite moves by both sides that created doubt about the ability to reach an agreement. He offered few details about what was discussed.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” Trump told reporters. He said that if a deal happens, it will likely be “towards the end of the year.”

While the deadly protests involved India’s citizenship law, others have protested the Trump visit, including supporters of the Communist Party of India in Mumbai on Tuesday. (Rajanish Kakade/The Associated Press)

The two countries have been engaged in a trade standoff since Trump imposed tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum exports. India responded with higher penalties on U.S. agricultural goods and restrictions on medical devices, prompting the U.S. to strip India of its decades-old trade preferences.

The day began with an elaborate welcome ceremony in front of the grand Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in New Delhi, continuing the pomp and pageantry the Indian government had lavished on Trump a day earlier.

Cannons fired as the president’s armoured car rolled through the palace gates accompanied by red-uniformed guards on horseback. The ceremony included hundreds of military officials, marching with instruments and swords, as well as an official greeting by India’s president and Modi.

On Tuesday, Trump and his wife Melania participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi in New Delhi at the site where the famed Indian independence leader was cremated after his assassination in January 1948.

“The last two days were amazing in every sense of the word,” Trump said, describing the trip as “unforgettable,” “extraordinary” and an expression of “love.”

Trump was set to attend an opulent state dinner at India’s presidential palace before returning home.

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